On September 15th, death capped the first of three days of demonstrations planned by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to contest the country’s August election results. In the face of widespread accusations of fraud and irregularities, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) declared victory in the poll, albeit with a significantly reduced majority. The CPP has dominated Cambodian politics since being installed by an invading Vietnamese army in 1979. 61-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen has led his country since 1985.
Barring an afternoon incident where authorities used smoke grenades and water cannons to disperse demonstrators attempting to dismantle a barricade in the city’s popular riverfront tourist district, the protests were peaceful, if not tense.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy concluded the day’s events with thousands of supporters in the capital’s Freedom Park shortly after nightfall. Two hours later, I received an urgent call from a friend across town: she could hear explosions and bursts of automatic rifle fire outside her window.
Piecing the story together in its aftermath, I learned that a throng of commuters had become engaged in a standoff with police near Monivong Bridge in southeastern Phnom Penh. The bridge, which crosses the Tonle Sap river to connect Phnom Penh with National Highway 1 (the city’s main eastbound artery), had been barricaded on account of the demonstrations. Frustrated that they were not being allowed to return home, the crowd began tearing down the fences and razor wire. Strictly speaking, these people were not CNRP supporters.
Riot police responded first with smoke grenades and tear gas, then by firing live ammunition into the air. To the crowd, I imagine, these security forces must have embodied all of the brutality and oppression of the long-reigning regime. The clashes quickly became politicized. Grievances were aired with insults, rocks, and hunks of concrete.
By the time I arrived (about 9pm), the bridge had been completely cordoned off. Battered and restrained demonstrators were being led into the neighbouring General Commissariat of National Police building while UN observers in sky blue vests vainly tried to intervene.
As I watched, radios started buzzing, and a group of soldiers, police, gendarmes, and special forces began assembling under an overpass. They must have numbered in the hundreds. Motorists attempting to approach were shouted at and beaten back.
Led by an armed unit clad in black body armour, authorities hurriedly crossed Monivong Bridge to pursue a group of demonstrators taking shelter near the ramshackle tin and board Chbar Ampov market. Cattle prods and electrified riot shields crackled in a cool drizzle. Authorities and demonstrators stood off.
From 50 metres behind police lines, I witnessed the thump and flash of smoke grenades followed by the clatter of automatic rifle fire. When the demonstrators dispersed, screaming under the barrage, they were pursued through the dark, narrow alleyways surrounding the market.
Authorities eventually pulled back, chased by a half-dozen young men brazenly shouting obscenities and hurling pieces of cement. The mass of security personnel ignored them. Some jovial, others solemn, the soldiers and police regrouped under the bridge.
I waited. Traffic trickled back into the streets. I wandered. Locals implored me to document the carnage around Chbar Ampov: spent pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle casings, piles of plastic gas canisters, pools of blood in the alleyways, chunks of cement scattered across the road. The wounded had already been rushed to hospitals. One bystander lifted his shirt to reveal bruises that he said were caused by rubber bullets. Another pointed out the blood-splattered ground where a friend had been shot.
“Some of the soldiers shot down, some shot up, and some shot right at us,” the man told me. This same witness claimed the soldiers were speaking Vietnamese.
At least eight people were shot that night. Who knows how many more were bludgeoned and tasered. Six are thought to have been detained.
Before I arrived, one man – 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan – had been killed. For hours, his body lay in the street, hands folded neatly over his chest, clutching a bundle of incense, bleeding rhythmically from his ears, a basket of donations resting next to him, a neat bullet wound oozing from his forehead.
I didn’t want to take a photograph. Gripping my arm, a young doctor urged me to document this act of violence “so the world will know.” But my international newspaper contacts weren’t interested in running a story about Chan: a construction worker by day, a newspaper stand guard at night, a father of four in a faded Bob Marley t-shirt. His wife would later claim that he never bothered himself with politics. A stray bullet. The wrong place at the wrong time.
An incensed mob refused to let authorities remove Chan’s body from the scene. Security forces fired more shots into the air. Around 12:45am, a UN vehicle was finally allowed to take him.
The Cambodian government quickly blamed the clashes on the CNRP. One politician stated that drug-addled youths in the opposition’s employ were responsible. Another hotly denied that live ammunition was used.
But: “They were shooting to kill,” a shaken young man told me. “It’s like we’re back in the time of Pol Pot.”
(An earlier version of this story appeared in the Southeast Asia Globe)